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In our Wi-Fi world, the internet still depends on undersea cables

English: A TOSLINK fiber optic cable with a cl...

A TOSLINK fiber optic cable with a clear jacket that has a laser being shone onto one end of the cable. The laser is being shone into the left connector; the light coming out the right connector is from the same laser. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nicole Starosielski, New York University

Recently a New York Times article on Russian submarine activity near undersea communications cables dredged up Cold War politics and generated widespread recognition of the submerged systems we all depend upon.

Not many people realize that undersea cables transport nearly 100% of transoceanic data traffic. These lines are laid on the very bottom of the ocean floor. They’re about as thick as a garden hose and carry the world’s internet, phone calls and even TV transmissions between continents at the speed of light. A single cable can carry tens of terabits of information per second.

While researching my book The Undersea Network, I realized that the cables we all rely on to send everything from email to banking information across the seas remain largely unregulated and undefended. Although they are laid by only a few companies (including the American company SubCom and the French company Alcatel-Lucent) and often funneled along narrow paths, the ocean’s vastness has often provided them protection.

2015 map of 278 in-service and 21 planned undersea cables.

Far from wireless

The fact that we route internet traffic through the ocean – amidst deep sea creatures and hydrothermal vents – runs counter to most people’s imaginings of the internet. Didn’t we develop satellites and Wi-Fi to transmit signals through the air? Haven’t we moved to the cloud? Undersea cable systems sound like a thing of the past.

The reality is that the cloud is actually under the ocean. Even though they might seem behind the times, fiber-optic cables are actually state-of-the-art global communications technologies. Since they use light to encode information and remain unfettered by weather, cables carry data faster and cheaper than satellites. They crisscross the continents too – a message from New York to California also travels by fiber-optic cable. These systems are not going to be replaced by aerial communications anytime soon.

A tangled cable caught by fishermen in New Zealand.

A vulnerable system?

The biggest problem with cable systems is not technological – it’s human. Because they run underground, underwater and between telephone poles, cable systems populate the same spaces we do. As a result, we accidentally break them all the time. Local construction projects dig up terrestrial lines. Boaters drop anchors on cables. And submarines can pinpoint systems under the sea.

Most of the recent media coverage has been dominated by the question of vulnerability. Are global communications networks really at risk of disruption? What would happen if these cables were cut? Do we need to worry about the threat of sabotage from Russian subs or terrorist agents?

The answer to this is not black and white. Any individual cable is always at risk, but likely far more so from boaters and fishermen than any saboteur. Over history, the single largest cause of disruption has been people unintentionally dropping anchors and nets. The International Cable Protection Committee has been working for years to prevent such breaks.

An undersea cable lands in Fiji.
Nicole Starosielski, CC BY-ND

As a result, cables today are covered in steel armor and buried beneath the seafloor at their shore-ends, where the human threat is most concentrated. This provides some level of protection. In the deep sea, the ocean’s inaccessibility largely safeguards cables – they need only to be covered with a thin polyethelene sheath. It’s not that it’s much more difficult to sever cables in the deep ocean, it’s just that the primary forms of interference are less likely to happen. The sea is so big and the cables are so narrow, the probability isn’t that high that you’d run across one.

Sabotage has actually been rare in the history of undersea cables. There are certainly occurrences (though none recently), but these are disproportionately publicized. The World War I German raid of the Fanning Island cable station in the Pacific Ocean gets a lot of attention. And there was speculation about sabotage in the cable disruptions outside Alexandria, Egypt in 2008, which cut 70% of the country’s internet, affecting millions. Yet we hear little about the regular faults that occur, on average, about 200 times each year.

Redundancy provides some protection

The fact is it’s incredibly difficult to monitor these lines. Cable companies have been trying to do so for more than a century, since the first telegraph lines were laid in the 1800s. But the ocean is too vast and the lines simply too long. It would be impossible to stop every vessel that came anywhere near critical communications cables. We’d need to create extremely long, “no-go” zones across the ocean, which itself would profoundly disrupt the economy.

Fewer than 300 cable systems transport almost all transoceanic traffic around the world. And these often run through narrow pressure points where small disruptions can have massive impacts. Since each cable can carry an extraordinary amount of information, it’s not uncommon for an entire country to rely on only a handful of systems. In many places, it would take only a few cable cuts to take out large swathes of the internet. If the right cables were disrupted at the right time, it could disrupt global internet traffic for weeks or even months.

The thing that protects global information traffic is the fact that there’s some redundancy built into the system. Since there is more cable capacity than there is traffic, when there is a break, information is automatically rerouted along other cables. Because there are many systems linking to the United States, and a lot of internet infrastructure is located here, a single cable outage is unlikely to cause any noticeable effect for Americans. is an interactive platform developed by Erik Loyer and the author that lets users navigate the transpacific cable network.

Any single cable line has been and will continue to be susceptible to disruption. And the only way around this is to build a more diverse system. But as things are, even though individual companies each look out for their own network, there is no economic incentive or supervisory body to ensure the global system as a whole is resilient. If there’s a vulnerability to worry about, this is it.

The Conversation

Nicole Starosielski, Assistant Professor of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



Boundaries, the web and global culture

Tim Berners-Lee: The World Wide Web - Opportunity, Challenge, Responsibility - Photo credit: Anna Lena Schiller via Flickr

By Michael Clark

I got the idea for Earthpages back in 1999. Since then I’ve had some very meaningful online interactions. Most of my experience with other people on the web has been good but, every now and then things deteriorated.

After losing a few contacts (sometimes through my choice, sometimes theirs), I decided to write up some some tips for a better online interactive experience. Although originally posted about a decade ago, I’ve updated what still applies today and deleted the rest.

First, a word about boundaries. Psychologically speaking, boundaries are those lines we draw between appropriate and inappropriate relating. They can apply to direct personal encounters or to the more abstract relationships that many of us have through online communities.

The norm for appropriate boundaries usually differs among individuals, just as it does among cultures. So the following guidelines should be viewed in light of your personal preferences and global experience.

Give the benefit of the doubt

Don’t jump to conclusions. If a message seems questionable or pushes your buttons, read it again a few days later and let the big picture come into focus.

Should we assume that people always have good reasons for doing things? I don’t think so. But it still pays off to give the benefit of the doubt. So don’t act on hasty, ill-informed opinions.

Wait your turn

If someone doesn’t reply to your message there’s probably a reason. To hound them with repeated messages is rude and could develop into a kind of unsavory stalking.

A pretty obvious rule of thumb is to wait your turn. If you’ve sent a message, wait until your correspondent replies before messaging them again. This gives them time to process your information.

There are exceptions to this. For instance, we might have forgotten, corrected or updated something and want to add a quick ‘p.s.’ That’s okay, providing the follow-up is brief and necessary.

Alternately, something urgent might demand another person’s attention, in which case you might be right in pestering them.

Don’t make a career out of pushing buttons or playing mind games

Misunderstandings are inevitable. But if we set out to test, irk or outdo another, we’re just being facetious and not making anything better. By the same token, this doesn’t mean we should squelch good natured playfulness. But, like everything else, play with sensitivity and care. And if your well intentioned humor doesn’t work, then think again.

Remember… the internet isn’t necessarily secure

Today this is well-known. But there was a time when people looked at me as if I’d just landed from Mars when suggesting that some stranger could be reading their private messages.

Every now and then I’ve received e-mails where people get carried away and forget they’re potentially talking to the whole world after clicking ‘send.’ Also remember that your e-pal might forward your juicy material to others without your knowing it.

Not good.

The Entrance to the World Wide Web (HDR)

The Entrance to the World Wide Web (HDR) by jmtosses via Flickr

Say what you mean and mean what you say

This sounds like a line from a James Bond or Austin Powers flick. But it’s a good motto. It’s about being honest and actively speaking your mind.

This can be tricky because we usually want to meet others halfway, and opinions are, by definition, limited. So sometimes we might hold back for a while to see if we can find common ground.

But even anonymous internet users should try to clearly say what they think, not play head games or, perhaps, vent anger that they don’t have the courage to openly and effectively express. And it goes without saying that real name users should try to do the same.

Find a common language

Nobody likes a fake or phony. Not even fakes and phonies! But if your new correspondent is using the Queen’s English, you might want to think twice before falling into your usual slang. Then again, you might think it’s more appropriate to stick to your usual dialect. I suppose it depends on how much one identifies with one’s personal style. But I, myself, always try to find a middle ground.

Learn from mistakes

If you happen to cross some line and offend another person by mistake, reflect long and hard as to why it happened. Provided it was just a mistake, don’t shoulder all the blame. It usually takes two to tango and playing the role of scapegoat or martyr doesn’t help anybody. But don’t run away from your share of personal responsibility either. Only young children, immature adults, adults in denial, sociopaths and fanatics don’t acknowledge their fair share of responsibility.

Instead of playing the blame game, avoid or possibly redirect the situation that brought about the misunderstanding in the first place. And if another person repeatedly crosses your line and doesn’t show any signs of remorse nor change for the better, then you might think about politely withdrawing.

Hint don’t insinuate

I know I said “say what you mean and mean what you say.” But sometimes it really is better to hint instead of saying things outright. Everybody does this consciously or subconsciously. Instead of insinuating, however, it’s better to hint.

To hint is to allude to sensitive issues with an indirect or roundabout kind of well-intentioned honesty. Insinuation, on the other hand, is a dark art where nasty ideas are thrown out like poison darts.

If we try to be positive while hinting at things, others usually catch the good vibe and reply in kind. And if they don’t, well, at least we tried.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

Rough day? Stressed out? Don’t use that as an excuse to treat others in ways that you, yourself, wouldn’t like to be treated.

Christian believer or not, this New Testament guideline really sums it all up. In fact, many world religions advocate a similar philosophy, called The Golden Rule.

Most people don’t like being insulted, lied to, cheated or manipulated—unless, of course, they’re negative attention seekers. Negative attention seeking is when someone, for whatever neurotic reasons, is just itching to get into a spat.  It’s an unhealthy approach to life and should be avoided or, if possible, redirected to a more congenial approach.

Recognize when to let go

Everybody needs space from time to time. Some of my most stimulating contacts rotate on an informal, undetermined schedule. Months, even years, might pass before a contact and I reconnect. If someone we like starts to tone things down, instead of neurotically clinging to them, it’s time to back off and possibly let it go (at least for a while).

Like the sun behind clouds, your e-pal will come out again when the time is right. And if not, chalk it up to experience. There’s over 2 billion internet users out there, so don’t get stuck on one person. Move on and remember… a web is always better than a single thread.

Earthpages does not render medical, legal, financial, counseling or other professional services. Those in need of expert assistance are advised to consult an appropriate licensed professional. See Terms of Use.

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For geeks only…

computer_nice_150.jpgNow that – Think Free is becoming a bit better known I find myself posting more comments than ever. Being a stickler for spelling, I used to copy and paste my comments into my word-processor to spell-check before posting because many blog sites don’t have spell-checking for comments. This took time, was a hassle, and sometimes caused more trouble than good because I felt that posting into my word-processor somehow robbed me of the sense of immediacy that is so vital to the web. Remember McLuhan who said ‘the medium is the message?’ Well, maybe it had something to do with that.

But to make a long story short… The other day I explored my I.E. 7 browser and discovered that with a simple right-click a Google spell-checker for on-line forms appears. And oh, what a relief it is! Errors show up in red and corrected versions are green. Almost like Christmas!

In the past I’ve been pretty minimalist with downloading updates, mostly because I had modest equipment (I still do) and didn’t want to load up my HD with tons of junk that I didn’t need. But the times are a changin’, and so am I. Now I’m realizing that it’s good to keep step with the latest software.

In most cases, anyhow…